The enclave was quiet the day normalcy died.
Usually, Thimble heard the hunters preparing for patrol. They had promoted a couple of new bloods to fill out their numbers, and they kept College territory clear of Freaksthe bane of their existence, the reason for the Hunters and the barricades. The feral creatures stalked the underground world where they lived, feeding on
anything at all. They ate animals if they could find them, or people
or their own dead. The beasts were hideous, other, and only the Wordkeeper knew where theyd come from.
As keeper of all enclave lore, the Wordkeeper decided what stories should be told, what information to pass on. He was an enclave elder; though he was younger than Whitewallthe chief elderhe had a meaner air. The Wordkeeper had long, spidery fingers and red-streaked eyes, likely from poring over artifacts people brought him. Thimble had listened to his stories as a brat, and hed always frightened her. His gaze lingered on her with faint disapproval; he did not support the weakness of permitting a flawed child to draw on community resources, even if she made herself useful, even if she worked twice as hard as the other Builders.
From her time at the Wordkeepers knee, Thimble knew the old legendsthat their people had come underground long ago to escape the dangers of the surface. Water fell from the sky that would burn your skin from your bones, and the air was like fire. Topside, people died in droves; their bodies rotted where they fell. Only Down Below were they safe. The earth offered shelter.
There was some communication among the underground tribes, but most were insular, permitting only occasional trade. Nassau had been their closest neighbor, but the Freaks wiped them out. Ate everyone. The elders pretended the other enclave had done something wrong, that they deserved their fate. Thimble feared the worst might be inevitable, but she wasnt important enough for anyone to listen to her misgivings. She was only a Builder, who kept fellow citizens in useful goods.
After the elders had banished her best friend, Deuce, for alleged hoarding, discontent spiked. Few truly believed the Huntress had committed that crime, for she had taken her duty to protect the community seriously, but all feared showing support. If exile came down upon her, it could happen to anyone. It had been so hard for Thimble to let it happen without protesting, but she wasnt brave enough to join her friend. Shed told herself that her bad foot would only slow Deuce down; most nights, that was cold comfort. Outwardly, life went on; they pretended to follow elder edicts, but in secret conclaves, people whispered, and those soft words fomented rebellion.
By now she ought to have heard the Hunters leaving. Her heart beat a little faster. Instead, footsteps sounded in the warren beyond, constructed of scrap metals and fabrics. Then Twist strode into the kitchen area, blades in his hands; weapons were forbidden to him as Whitewalls assistant. He had been a Builder before his elevation in status, and he shouldnt be armed. His expression was steady as he swept the brats assembled to devour tidbits from other meals. That would have been shocking enough, but twenty citizens stood at his back, silently supporting this fracture of enclave rules. They were a mixed lot, some Hunters, some Breeders, some Builders, but all shared Twists stoic resolve.
Thimble stared. She stilled, hoping this didnt mean what she feared. But perhaps this confrontation was inevitable. Change had been brewing since the elders sent Deuce and Fade on the long walk; Twist heralded the revolution.
Whitewall will banish you all for this, Copper spat.
She was an elder herself, and she served as Whitewalls occasional mate, though they had both passed out of breeding age. Elders came from all three castes, supposedly to make equitable decisions, but Thimble had never seen any evidence that was the case. Once a citizen turned twenty-two, he was eligible to be promoted from the castes of Builder, Breeder, or Hunter to elder status, and there was an election process, but people had been whispering for a while that it was corrupt and only those who supported the status quo wholeheartedly had any chance of reaching that office.
No, he wont, Twist replied. Youll send nobody else on the long walk. Youve killed your last innocent.
Thimble remembered Banner, who had died in the female lavatory with her arms slashed open. People had said the girl, who had been a Builder, must have indulged in unsanctioned physical activity, resulting in a forbidden pregnancy. Unable to bear the thought of the long walk, she had taken her own life and that of her unborn bratto spare them both the shame and degradation of a slower death. But there had been murmurs of dissent from those who knew Banner and spoke highly of her, albeit never in the elders hearing.
She wouldnt have done that, they said. Its just another example of the elders governing through dread.
Terror tightened Thimbles throat. The rules might be terrible and unfair, but what would happen to the enclave if everything fell to pieces, if they permitted conflict inside the barricades? The tunnels spanned unimaginable distances; nobody knew exactly far they ran or why they had been built. There were no maps. The College Enclave was the only world shed ever known. Thimble had never seen the tunnels for herself, only heard stories from returning Hunters.
She couldnt speak, watching with horrified eyes as disaster loomed. The hiss of roasting meat seemed too mundane for this moment; fat sizzled in the flames as it dropped, punctuating the anger that radiated from Twist like a disease. He was a small male, stuntednot physically capable of qualifying as a Hunteryet he held his weapon without fear. Thimble had the sense of the world crumbling beneath her, as Copper and Twist exchanged stares.
Twist smiled. Theyre not all blindly loyal. Some will stand and fight with me. Though I want to kill all of you for what you did to Banner, it doesnt have to end this way. Im better than you. Therefore, if Whitewall permits an honest election of new elders, who will evaluate our current practices and amend them as necessary, then this dispute can be resolved peacefully. I want whats best for the enclave, not what grants me the most power.
Before Copper could respond, the crowd parted to show Whitewall, bent and withered, with a glint of pure malice in his yellow-brown eyes. There can be only one response to lawbreakers. If you come against me, traitor, be prepared to die.
Whitewall went for his weapon.
Without hesitation, Twist whipped his knife toward the elder. Thimble tracked each endless turn of the blade, as if time had slowed. Then things snapped back into normal speed. The dagger vibrated when it struck Whitewall in the chest; and she knew enough of the human body to understand that when the elder crumpled, he would not rise again. Screaming, wild-eyed with shock, Copper seized a heavy metal pan. She lashed out, nearly caving in a brats skull.
That freed everyone else from unnatural stillness. While chaos exploded around her, Thimble crouched, beckoning to the frightened brats. They had no idea what was going on, and they were too young to take sides; they only knew their world was dissolving.
A few obeyed instinctively, whimpering with fear, but others ran, wailing, from the cook space. Tears burned in her eyes. Oh, Stone. I need to find you. He was the only friend she had left since Deuce had gone. But she couldnt turn away. The brats took priority.
There might be no safety anywhere, but she had to try. Five brats whose numbers she didnt know trailed close as she led them through the enclave. The battle raged all around, fighting on all sides, and the sweet, coppery stink of blood hung heavy in the smoky air. If we dont fight, well be all right when the conflict ends. They wont kill neutral survivors if they want the enclave to endure. Theyll need us to rebuild and repopulate.
It was a faint, desperate hope, and one that permitted her to weave a dangerous path toward the far end of the brat dorm. Twice, she came up against an armed, blood-spattered Hunter, looming over her in the dark, and Thimble nearly died of fear. With a brat clinging to each hand, both her legs, she couldnt fight. And even if she had a weapon, she lacked the skill and coordination.
She wasnt too proud to beg for their lives. In piteous unison, the brats echoed that single word.
Both times, the Hunters stepped back and permitted them to pass. There was no telling where their allegiances layto Twist or Whitewallbut they werent murderous monsters. From their first breaths, they had trained to protect the enclave, not prey on its most helpless citizens. Thimble stumbled onward, trying to get far, far away from the impossible. The unthinkable. At last, she reached safety, where she found other brats cowering. They crawled to her with bloody hands, palms split from their panicked flight. Most likely, the Hunters hadnt meant to hurt them, but accidents happened. Thimble drew down one of the fabric dividers and arranged it around them in a pitiful attempt at concealment. The young ones curled around her while they listened to the screams of the dying.
Stone had never killed anything. Not an animal. Not an insect. His most sacred charge came in preserving life; he tended the brats when they took ill. He fed them. Played with them. Sometimes he taught them small things, like how to cut meat or tie a knotnothing significant, the elders argued. It wasnt as if he played a vital role in enclave life, not like the Wordkeeper. Anyone with two hands could clean the filth off a brats backside.
Fearing a freak attack, hed stumbled into the common area, ready to pitch in, and found that his fellow citizens had gone crazy. Thimble had mentioned something about unrest, but hed ignored her. He had thought, You worry too much. As it turned out, she had been right. I wish Id listened. But
how could anyone expect this? All around him, they fought with whatever weapons fell to hand. People were bleeding and dying; death hung heavy in the air.
He backed away, thinking only to hide, but a Hunter stopped him with a look that promised Stones end, unless he did something really right. The boy shoved a weapon at him; Stone took the blade awkwardly, stupid with shock.
Fight or die, the Hunter demanded. Are you with us?
With who? He heard the break in his voice, knowing distress made him weakunsuited to any task but breeding and caring for the young. A smarter male would know what to do, so maybe it was best he had been given only simple work. But that lack left him helpless now.
Twist, or the elders. Whitewalls dead, and the Wordkeepers corpse is right over there.
Stone fought his urge to look but in the end, he couldnt help it. The elder lay sprawled on his side, a dark pool spreading from his cut throat. Behind him, blood spattered the wall. His stomach lurched, and he tightened his hand on the knife to try to control the nausea.
There was no way out of this nightmare. What side are you on?
Im with Twist, the Hunter snapped, like that should have been obvious. Maybe it wouldve been to anyone else.
At the best of times, he wasnt quick to connect puzzle pieces or work things out. Hed always had Thimble for that. An ache sprang up in his chest.
Where is she?
The look in the Hunters eye told Stone that if he answered wrong, hed get a dagger in the chest and end up in a pile next to the Wordkeeper. From this point on, everything would change. No matter who won, the enclave couldnt continue as it had. Too many lives had already been lost.